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Tech Before Sea Otter: Travis Brown's 1991 Manitou

By Bruce Lin

The Sea Otter Classic is one of the largest bike festivals in the US and has become a favorite venue for manufacturers to show off their new products and tech. It began in 1991, 28 years ago. While we love the latest and greatest tech, we also love seeing where the roots of where these new ideas began. In our excitement for Sea Otter this year, we decided to take a look back at the most innovative bike in our museum from the year the festival began.

In 1991, Manitou founder Doug Bradbury created one of the first full suspension mountain bikes. This Manitou was a real race bike, piloted by Travis Brown in the 1992 season. In its day it was cutting edge, incredibly progressive, and the object of lust for countless riders. We know you want to ride all the new things, but if you had a chance to ride the Manitou today, would you dare?

Travis Brown's Manitou

Suspension Forks

What's Hot Today:

Where It All Started:

  • The Original Manitou fork

The Manitou ForkAll fancy new forks owe much to the groundbreaking Manitou forks on this bike. One of the first suspension forks, the Manitou was designed and built in Doug Bradbury’s garage in 1990. Legendary racer, John Tomac, requested one immediately and soon suspension became the biggest new thing in mountain biking. The rest is history.

While most modern forks generally use an air spring, the Manitou fork uses elastomers. These were polymer cylinders that acted as a spring and could be tuned using varying levels of firmness. They provided a modest 2 inches of travel and worked as long as it wasn’t too cold outside.

The Manitou fork provides 2in of travelIn 1991, there was nothing else like it. We take good suspension for granted now. But riders who knew nothing but the harsh nature of full rigid mountain bikes saw a whole new world open to them with the introduction of the Manitou fork.

Bradbury took things a step further, using a second, reconfigured Manitou fork in place of seatstays to make one of the first full suspension mountain bikes. It uses a single pivot behind the bottom bracket to articulate the rear end.

Manitou rear pivotIt’s not the most effective design, as the fork legs are pointed away from the direction of most impacts, but at the time it was the simplest solution and it allowed the Manitou to still be comparable to rigid/hardtail in terms of efficiency. It would be years before effective linkage designs utilizing a smaller shock would spring up, but Bradbury’s innovative thinking opened the floodgates of possibility.

Manitou rear fork

Drivetrain

What's Hot Today:

Where It All Started:

  • Shimano XTR 8-Speed

Shimano XTR 8-Speed

Shimano’s new 12-speed XTR was announced nearly a year ago, and this Sea Otter we expect to see Shimano’s latest wide range 1x drivetrain equipped on more and more new bikes. Back in 1991, XTR was introduced for the very first time as Shimano’s pro level, race-oriented group. For the Manitou, it was the obvious choice.

It had 8 speeds and 3 chainrings. Most riders today would never voluntarily ride a triple front chainring setup, but thirty years ago, before 1x drivetrains with huge cassettes, it was the only way to get adequate gear range.

Shimano XTR Triple cranksetFirst gen XTR actually isn’t that bad to ride. Rear shifts are actually quite smooth and drama free. It’s iffier with the front derailleur, and the chain is easy to drop. But XTR has been at the top of Shimano’s line-up for decades now, and it's the drivetrain of choice for many of the world’s best riders.  

Wheel & Hub Standards

What's Hot Today:

  • Boost and Super Boost Plus

Where It All Started:

  • Custom 145mm spacing

Manitou 145mm rear hubIn the last few years, hub standards have continued to change and grow, from 10x135mm to 12x142mm, to Boost, to even Super Boost Plus. The general purpose of expanding hub standards has been to create stiffer wheels and shorter chainstays. With the Manitou, Bradbury was again ahead of the curve. He pushed the driveside out 10mm to create a wider 145mm rear hub.

This allows for a stiffer rear wheel with zero dish, an idea that would come back years later with developments like Cannondale’s Ai Offset rear ends. 142mm and 148mm wide rear ends wouldn’t arrive until 20 years later. Bradbury had to make a custom XTR rear hub, asymmetrical dropouts, and a longer bb spindle to keep everything in line.

Geometry

What's Hot Today:

  • Shorter Stems
  • Longer Reach

Where It All Started:

  • Shorter Stems
  • Longer Reach

Manitou 120mm short stemIt’s not uncommon now for mountain bikes to come equipped with 35-50mm stems. In conjunction, reach on mountain bikes has been getting longer. In comparison, the Manitou still has a relatively short top tube, long stem, and narrow bars. Even so, it was also one of the first mountain bikes to employ any sort of “progressive” geometry.

It may sound ridiculous now, but the 120mm stem is actually short for its time. Bradbury allowed Travis Brown to incorporate any changes he wanted, and what Brown requested was a 50mm longer top tube to match with the “short” stem. Bradbury thought Brown was crazy, but he implemented the changes and soon the handling benefits were obvious. Thanks to such forward-thinking builders and riders, mountain bikes would continue to grow in length for the next 30 years into the amazingly stable machines we have today.

History Never Gets Old

Thanks to the innovative suspension, top-end components, the stiff rear end, and the progressive geometry, the Manitou was a weapon on the trail. It’s been ridden hard. The drivetrain is worn, the decades-old elastomers in the suspension are practically immobile, and the headtube is cracked in several places - evidence of how Travis was able to push this bike to the absolute limit of the technology of the time.

Manitou cracked headtubeThough beaten and worn, this Manitou is still a pillar in the history of mountain biking. Much of the latest and greatest tech that we will see walking the pits at Sea Otter owe their existence to bikes like the Manitou and Doug Bradbury. Here’s to the next 30 years, and all the exciting things to come!  

Read more about Travis Brown's 1991 Manitou.

Explore the Bike Museum.

 

Bruce is a writer who loves getting his bikes dirty, trying new tech, and riding tough trails that make him suffer for hours at a time. 


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